Peoplehood & Pluralism 100 Years Ago

The latest edition of the Peoplehood Papers focuses on "Peoplehood in the Age of Pluralism." In this edition of J-Vault, we'll see that elements of this current conversation are, of course, anything but new.

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From the J-Vault: The Lesson It Teaches Us: Campaign to Raise Four Million Dollars in a Fortnight by the Young Men's and Young Women's Christian Association (1913)

Falk Younger outlines the genesis of the YMCA movement, in a passage with obvious relevance to modern Jewish communities:

In England, about seventy years ago, a small group of earnest, liberal and highminded men met in conference to consider what could be done to keep within the fold the large number of young men who were rapidly drifting away from the influence of the church. They realized that the emphasis that was laid upon ritual and ceremony by the various denominations at the time, and which aroused more or less feeling and dissension among them, did not appeal to the young men and that some means must be devised to retain their fidelity and devotion to Christian ideals... something practical was needed to properly guide them and aid them to recognize the fact that to lead a clean, honest and upright life is not after all such a lonesome job, and that to be a church member does not necessarily mean to be serious at all times and to wear a long, sad face.

Younger goes on to describe the founding of the YMHA and YWHA along the same lines, as a means of engaging the next generation of Jews. But the mission of these community centers goes beyond engagement, he writes, and into topics related to what we would now describe as both peoplehood and pluralism:

All those truly interested in the progress of Jewish affairs must deeply deplore the lack of union in our midst and the consequent waste of energy. This condition of affairs is often disheartening to those most optimistic. Our communities are divided and sub-divided, and each faction attempts to go its own way, and a lack of sympathetic co-operation is manifest everywhere, especially when it comes to questions concerning the good name and general welfare of all, when it is absolutely necessary that we should work in unison as a people...
Let us therefore be Orthodox or Reformed, as our feelings may prompt; but above all things, wc must learn to understand that questions of detail regarding religious forms and ceremonies are matters concerning which we may honestly differ. Our influence for good in the world surely does not hang on these things. If our mission as a priest people is to mean something more than an empty boast, an idle dream, or mere play with words' and the world shall some day witness the realization of this ideal, let us emphasize the many things we have in common that demand our hearty co-operation rather than those minor matters in reference to which we may hold different views. We may have diversity of opinion and at the same time have perfect union when it comes to the solution of important problems...

Judaism today needs—aye, is weeping for—a class of young men and women who will come forward and be broad, liberal, generous and tolerant as well as magnanimous in spirit. Such young men and women must assert their Judaism, not by constantly referring to the forms and ceremonies they keep or have cast aside, or by boasting of the food they eat or do not cat; that they pray in Hebrew or in English, as the case may be, or with head covered or uncovered. No, not so our methods. Let the purity, integrity and virtue of our lives, our characters, our modesty, culture and refinement as well as our devotion to all that is lofty and elevating proclaim our Jewishness.

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Silencing, Censoring, Hosting, Choosing

censored

An opinion piece by J.J. Goldberg appears in the Forward under the headline, Silencing of the Liberal American Jew. Reacting to a synagogue's cancellation of a speech by Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Goldberg writes, among other things:

Determined campaigns by noisy minorities or threats by a handful of major donors regularly silence voices deemed controversial...

The disinviting of Wasserman Schultz takes the stifling of free discourse into a new and alarming realm...

[Jews] have long been an important voice for justice. It’s a pity that they let their voice be hijacked, diverted or cut off from allies by an unrepresentative minority.

[Emphasis is mine.]

A few weeks ago, when the 14th St Y canceled a Jewish youth group's planned event to discuss a partial boycott of Israel, a leader of the group said:

“This is consistent with other issues we have seen in Jewish institutional spaces, when Jews who have tried to express opinions that are not of the status quo about Israel are censored". (Emphasis is mine.)

There are two questions here which must remain separate: first, how broad is the discourse that the Jewish community chooses to host, encourage, and/or facilitate? And, second, is failing to host, encourage, and facilitate a discussion the same thing as censoring it?

It seems to me that broader discourse is usually good. Politics matter and carry both moral and religious weight, so both liberal and conservative voices should be heard in our shuls. The Jewish community includes a large spectrum of opinion about Zionism, so a strong case can be made that Jewish communal institutions should welcome a broader spectrum of discourse about Israel than they currently do.

At the same time, I would ask all those who use these terms like censorship, silencing, stifling, etc.: is it really the case that choosing not to host, encourage or facilitate every kind of conversation is censorship? Isn't it within any institution's right to choose its own boundaries and norms? Is it really the case that the membership of an institution is being somehow denied the chance to take part in the discussion, when any member can, at any time they wish, join or attend another institution at which the discussion does take place? Did the 14th St Y somehow lock Young, Jewish and Proud out of the city of New York entirely, preventing them from holding an event at any other venue? Did they lock the doors of anyone's radio station or smash anyone's printing press? Is Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of the United States Congress now suddenly lost in the wilderness, bereft of microphones, now that the mighty Temple Israel of Miami has slammed its doors to her humble plea to speak her mind?

We're not talking about anyone facing any actual sanction, danger, penalty, or obstacle for voicing an opinion -- we're talking about institutions making choices about whom they will give a platform for voicing which opinions. Those choices are important, and they merit a real debate, one from which I certainly would not ask Mr. Goldberg, nor Jewish Voices for Peace and its youth affiliate, to back down. I would only ask: isn't it possible to make a strong argument for broadening the discourse within Jewish communal institutions without resorting to spurious (and therefore counterproductive) accusations of censorship?

(Browse BJPA for Discourse and Dialogue.)

UPDATE (June 25, 2012): Right-wingers can play this game too.

Podcast: Jewish Values, Jewish Interests

Ruth Wisse

This was easily our most provocative event to date.

On Monday, December 5th, Prof. Ruth Wisse and Rabbi Joy Levitt joined BJPA Director Prof. Steven M. Cohen at the NYU Law School for a wide-ranging, passionate, broad discussion of how the Jewish community should relate to the outside world.

After a brief ceremony honoring Gail Chalew for her 20+ years as editor of the Journal of Jewish Communal Service (the digitization of which on BJPA was the impetus for the event), Rabbi Levitt spoke of her decisions, as Executive Director of the JCC in Manhattan, to reach out to non-Jewish poor and minority communities, as well as the Muslim community leaders affiliated with the Cordoba Center / Park 51 "Ground Zero mosque" now known as Prayer Space. Prof. Wisse spoke of Israel under attack and an American Jewish community lacking in moral confidence, and judging Judaism based on liberal standards instead of liberalism based on Jewish standards. Our fearless leader, Prof. Cohen, acted as moderator, but without setting aside his own positions on the issues.

Click here to listen.

Fun in a Financial Funk

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Worldwide stocks tumbling... A showdown at the UN over a Middle East conflict that appears ever more impossible to solve... Heavy stuff. How about a little fun?

This week, from the J-Vault: Leisure Time Activity in the Depression Period (1932)

"Leisure," writes Samuel J. Rodman, "has been defined as 'the time-surplus remaining after the practical necessities of life have been attended to'":

One's leisure time are those periods in which one is free to do as he wishes or as his interests dictate, it is a period in which one plays. With the above definition as our guide it is quite obvious that it is entirely wrong to call the time liberated by unemployment as leisure time. Picture, if you will, the leisure time of the "true gentleman of leisure" on board the Europa on his way for an extended holiday to the Riviera, as compared to the supposed leisure time of the worker who by 3 P. M . has given up his futile attempt in search for a job—and you have two distinct varieties of leisure time.

The unemployed have special emotional needs which ideal leisure activities should address, Rodman notes. He quotes a report from the Welfare Council of New York City:

"As a result of the economic conditions of the past two years," the report continues, "the family affection has been sorely tried, conjugal and parental ties have been weakened, family groups have disintegrated, the source of income has shifted from the husband and father to the wife and children or to public, paternal authority has lost force, home discipline has suffered, personality difficulties and family problems have been precipitated, instability and insecurity have increased."

I present these excerpts in an attempt to picture the clients for whom leisure time activities are to be planned so that "he may drown his sorrows and divert his mind from his condition."

One of my colleagues in the Jewish center field recently referred to himself in discussing his work as "running a human repair shop." What busy mechanics we should be at this time in repairing the wreck by which we are confronted...

...To keep the Roman unemployed happy and amused, history records that the government presented free circuses and public displays of butchery.

(An aside: I can just see a new kind of government stimulus package: Roman-style gladiatorial games. It has the added advantage of killing off those who lose the games, so... fewer mouths to feed, with no need for a death panel, or a Texas prison, or a Ron Paul health care plan. But back to Rodman:)

Let us boast of a higher civilization, provide civilized outlets for our unemployed by offering public courses in economics, labor history, sociology and other social sciences...

Through tactful guidance and encouragement and influence on our part, we may actually turn this enforced idleness into a golden opportunity for an adult education program which will prepare for the leisure which is bound to come when our economic house is ultimately set in order...

...In Europe, adult education, cultural pursuits and even political study and activity are considered recreational use of leisure. A cultural program, therefore, for our working group, definitely falls within the realm of our program of activity. I am definitely of the opinion that our community centers ought to play an important role in the reconstruction of society. Will we fulfill our responsibility to our community in this national emergency?

So... all you unemployed folks out there: feel like sitting in a Jewish community center and learning socioeconomic theory all afternoon for no money or college credit?

Actually, if I were unemployed myself, I would be happy to spend some time taking social science courses for the sheer fun of it. But I am an inveterate nerd, so let's not make policy based on me.

Interested in the excerpts above? Download the entire publication.

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